Creative Writing
Politics & SocietyEmail This Article Print This Article

Lost for words

Elliot Koubis

Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris
The Lost Words: A Spell Book
Hamish Hamilton
128 pp.





At 7pm on Wednesday 11th October, with rain pouring down outside, the main lecture room of the Oxford Museum of Natural History was heaving. Intrigued adults, as well as families with children, were waiting for Jackie Morris, the acclaimed illustrator and author of The Snow Leopard and The Ice Bear, and Robert Macfarlane, the bestselling author of The Old Ways and Landmarks, to discuss their new collaboration, The Lost Words, an enormous, lushly illustrated grimoire of ‘spells’ for readers of all ages.

The Lost Words primarily tussles with the theme of disappearance. As the flora and fauna of our immediate environment are increasingly under threat, our ability to name them is diminishing at an equally alarming pace. Cambridge researchers recently discovered that the children in their study between the ages of eight and eleven were able to recall the names of Pokémon more easily than those of British plants or animals, recording 80% accuracy for the fictional Japanese critters and 50% for real wildlife. A 2017 Wildlife Trust survey found that adults also struggled to put names to nature: 75% were unable to identify an ash tree, whilst a third could not name a barn owl. These worrying statistics might be explained by urbanisation, less frequent unsupervised playtime in nature and a corresponding increase in screen time for children, and the partition of access to the natural world according to class, ethnicity, and income. The Oxford Junior Dictionary seeks to reflect the language actually used by children. The omissions in its latest edition codified this linguistic and cultural shift away from our immediate natural environment, thus providing the impetus for The Lost Words.

This dearth of public knowledge has real-world repercussions for wildlife conservation. In Landmarks (2015), Macfarlane argued that words are instrumental in creating a sense of enchantment in the things we name, and as the words we use to describe nature come under threat, natural phenomena have less purchase in our minds and speech. If we do not possess a word for something, our ability to summon it into the imagination is severely impeded. Likewise, if we cannot name something, we tend not to notice it in nature. Consequently, as our sense of wonder for nature is broken, Macfarlane argues that we are less inclined to protect it. Macfarlane uses Max Weber’s theory of “disenchantment” as his point of departure, described by Weber himself as “the knowledge or belief that… there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation”. The rationalism of modernity has therefore subsumed nature to Man’s control, and as a result we tend to view the natural world exclusively as something that we can manipulate for our own ends, as something to be consumed, rather than appreciating it as something with intrinsic value. In the same Wildlife Trust survey, sixty-nine percent of people polled felt that they had “lost touch with nature”. Despite the loss of our nature vocabulary, this otherwise damning statistic suggests that there is still a general desire to engage physically and emotionally with the natural world around us.

It is from this sense of loss, and the resultant desire to familiarise ourselves with nature, that The Lost Words begins. The book opens with a fable for modernity: “Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children.” Each page contains an acrostic poem, or ‘spell’ (Macfarlane exploits both of the word’s potential meanings – “to spell”, but also a series of words with magical powers), dedicated to an animal or plant from the immediate natural world which was culled from the recent Oxford Junior Dictionary. Macfarlane’s incantational poems are to be read aloud to encourage readers to summon back the creatures into the imagination and foster natural wonderment in the reading process. Ted Hughes’ curt alliteration haunts the spells throughout, like in “Fern”: “Fern’s first form is furled…” But the individual spells possess their own unique voices: “Raven” cannot help but recall Poe’s famous poem in its rhythm: “I am Raven! Of the blue-black jacket and the boxer’s swagger… raps Raven in reply”. The playful “Newt” is imbued with the sounds and wordplay of Dr. Seuss: “‘Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!’/ Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt’. The “Magpie Manifesto” comically transforms the eponymous bird into a Tristan Tzara-esque figure: “Pick A Fight in an Empty Room!”

Macfarlane does not hesitate to spin novel poetic images or to employ phrases and neologisms that some might consider esoteric for a young readership. The reader is presented with the “sudden susurrus” of the adder, the “Asphodel and bilberry, crowberry and cotton-grass” of the moor, and deliciously inventive appositions (in “Ivy”: “You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.”). Both of the authors contest that The Lost Words is not a children’s book: it is a “book for people”. It is a learning experience for a general audience through language and image. During the talk, Macfarlane asserts that children “neologise like crazy,” and so the frequent coinages, rather than being textually alienating, actually reflect the way they use language to describe their environment. It is refreshing to see such highly-wrought, lexically-rich writing in books that will be read to or by children.

Morris’s watercolour illustrations consolidate the sense of enchantment that the poems attempt to establish. Drawing on the long tradition of the livre d’artiste, the intersection of poetry and art, the poems are accompanied by full-page illustrations overlaid on gold. In the lecture, Morris explains that her intention was to sanctify the animals and plants by presenting them like religious icons. These diptychs offer their subjects emotive sanctuary in our imagination. At the same time the stark presentation of the animals on the page is a  that focuses the reader’s attention to the animal, where such attention has been lacking in the real world. The double-page spreads play with absence in striking ways: Morris paints white silhouettes of animals against barebone landscapes, strewn with strings of letters that visually enact the loss of nature language. Keen children might discern the wildlife words hidden in the mess of letters, summoning up the absent animal on the following page. Her illustrations thus perform the way in which language can draw things out of nature and into our attention.

Macfarlane and the so-called “New Nature Writing” movement have been criticised for being devoid of any political charge, and for focusing on texts rather than the specificities of landscapes. Even though this criticism does not stand up to scrutiny (for what these authors are doing most importantly is obliquely bringing nature and conservation back into the public discourse), such claims cannot be levelled at The Lost Words. The book is squarely focused upon the immediate and mostly accessible natural world around us, not upon the remote destinations and abstract musings of privileged “excursionists.” Furthermore, a proportion of the royalties from sales of the book will go to Action for Conservation, a charity that works directly against class or ethnic disparities in public access to nature by working with disadvantaged and socially excluded children. Whilst no affordable paperback edition is yet in the pipeline (lamentable considering such an edition would make the book’s political impact more widespread) the authors are in discussion with publishers to subsidise copies for school libraries, which are increasingly under threat from government cuts.

The book’s drive to enhance social consciousness of nature has already yielded fruitful results: in the lecture theatre, Macfarlane and Morris display a slideshow of images sent in by many different families of their children reading the book aloud, some in the great outdoors, summoning back the creatures from the undergrowth of the land and of language. If this is anything to go by, then The Lost Words might yet rekindle younger readers’ respect for the natural world and help to preserve the future of conservation. As George Monbiot puts it, “we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets… Acknowledging our love for the living world does something that a library full of papers on sustainable development and ecosystem services cannot: it engages the imagination as well as the intellect. It inspires belief; and this is essential to the lasting success of any movement.”


Elliot Koubis is studying for an M.St in Modern Greek at Worcester College. His poetry collection, ‘Echoing’, is now available from Ampersand Publishing.